Identity theft and the Internet

Jill Sigal Contributor
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Facebook, MySpace, Linkedin, Biznet…the list of social and business networking sites go on and on and on.  It is hard to imagine how we made it through the day just a few years back without all of these sites to write about our daily comings and goings.  How could we have gotten along without knowing that Facebook Friend X just drove across the country with her three cats and two dogs, ate in five diners and had a flat tire in South Dakota?  Or that Facebook Friend Y’s little three-year old daughter Cody just threw up on the living room couch while her two-year old brother Jackson pooped on the floor?  Life would not be the same without knowing that these events occurred.

I joke about these kinds of postings, but if people want to tell the world, or at least their 928 “friends,” about their kids, dogs, vacations, who they voted for on the All-Star ballot, why they think the Democrats are right on an issue or why the Republicans are right on the same issue, then why not?  It’s all innocent and it allows people to connect instantly with their friends, family and business acquaintances.

But what happens when social and business networking sites are used for not so innocent things?  We have all heard about how some networking sites are sharing private information, but what about when sites are used for Internet harassment or identity theft?  What then?  How do networking sites react to this type of misuse?  Are they helpful to the victim or do they hide behind their “privacy” policies?  Are there sufficient laws in place to protect victims and prosecute criminals?  I can answer a few of these questions from personal experience.

For the past eight months or so I have been a victim of an Internet harassment campaign and identify theft.  You may have seen a picture of me on another Internet site, in fact the picture that accompanies this opinion piece.  It is my likeness, stolen off of my Facebook profile, and used to create the look of a genuine website. The website was not created by me, but by criminals.  So what does one do when he or she is a victim of Internet crime and identity theft?  The first thing to do is put on a “Colombo” hat.  Remember the character Peter Falk played in the TV series?  It used to be my favorite TV show and watching it every week back then has served me well in this situation.

As a wise defense attorney once told me, all criminals think they never leave a trail and will never get caught.  This criminal arrogance and the fact that they do leave a trail, even when they do their best to cover their tracks, work in the victims favor.  It is amazing what an Internet novice like me can uncover and how, with some persistence, you can connect the dots.  Persistence is the key because only some of the social and business networking sites are helpful to the victim while others hide behind “privacy” policies that, in effect, ultimately protect criminals.

I won’t name names, at least not today, but I thank those networking sites that gave me the information I requested and took down the fake sites without making me jump through any hoops.  And for those who hid behind their privacy policies in the face of criminal Internet harassment, thank goodness for the mighty tool of the subpoena.

Internet crime, whether it is civil libel and defamation or criminal harassment, is the new frontier of criminal activity and it can happen to anyone.  You don’t have to live in a crime-ridden neighborhood to be a victim of an Internet crime.  These crimes are committed in the comfort of someone’s living room or at the local coffee shop.  It is time to put a stop to Internet crimes and to put the criminals in jail.

My message to Congress:  In light of the explosion of the Internet, it is time to review the existing laws and assess whether changes are needed to ensure that adequate protections are in place for the victims of Internet crimes and that appropriate sanctions are in place for this type of criminal activity.

My message to the public:  Don’t always believe what you see and read on the Internet even if a site or profile looks real.

My message to the criminals:  Keep looking over your shoulder because you will be amazed by how soon the knock on your door is coming…I hope you all look good in orange jumpsuits.

Jill Sigal is President of Jill Sigal Associates, a consulting firm specializing in policy development, strategic planning, government relations, communications and stakeholder and community outreach.  She recently has added Internet harassment to the portfolio of issues for which she gives public policy and strategic advice.